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Remote Control

Unit Operations Lab Goes Remote

By Alana Norris

Over the summer, chemical and biological engineering faculty were able to bring a long-planned idea to fruition for their students.

For the first time at The University of Alabama, the CHE 323 Operations Laboratory course became a remote lab dependent on teaching assistants and instructors to manage the experiments on campus using directions given by students from a distance.

“We have worked very hard to make the experience as close to in-person as possible, with as much control in the hands of the students as we can,” Dr. Stephen Ritchie said.

Woman on a computer in lab

Ritchie, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, has led the remote lab project that puts students on teams that work together to operate large-scale unit operations experiments through their teaching assistants.

“The TA is serving as their hands, and operating instructions supplied by the team to the TA must be clear and explicit,” Ritchie said. “Diagnostics are critical to ensure equipment is connected as displayed in the supplied process flow diagram.”

The students guide the TAs from a distance through audio and video interaction and written step-by-step procedures. The class stays connected through Zoom channels, a video communications and chat platform. Using this program allows people to enter and leave their meetings as needed, he said.

“Experimental data of interest includes temperatures, pressures, flows and concentrations. Each of these can be measured remotely, or with the help of a TA in the lab. All data is recorded on the console computer that is controlled by the team,” Ritchie said.

In this new format, data acquisition is now automated through LabVIEW. The program records most of the data in an electronic logbook while some is still recorded manually in a notebook.

The class also shares files through Box, a cloud content management system, and the students take exams on Blackboard, a learning management system.

The goal is for the students to control and collect data from their experiments.

“Students take remote desktop control of a computer that is interfaced with the experiment,” Ritchie said. “Experiments in Summer 2020 have included heat exchange, control valve, continuously stirred tank reactor, distillation and sorption. Student groups monitor instrument readings, and to varying degrees, control the experiment.”

The lab was offered to students during both summer sessions. Summer I had 14 students, and there were 17 students in Summer II. Students from as far as Kuwait registered for the course.

“Three of the students who took the class in Summer I served in TA roles in Summer II,” Ritchie said.

One of those students who had the unique opportunity to be involved in both roles is Elise Kaminski, a chemical engineering senior. She had never taken a remote lab before this summer and said it was unlike any course she’d ever taken.

She said students work to design procedures that produce quality experimental data, and TAs execute those plans with attention to lab and equipment safety. TAs only intervene if the instructions they’re given can potentially generate hazardous conditions in the lab.

“As a student in unit ops, you are responsible for experimental design and for explicitly conveying to the TAs how they should conduct the experiment for you,” Kaminski said. “As a general TA, your role is to follow the instructions given by the teams, much as an operator in a plant would.”

Along with the two other TAs, Kaminski worked over the summer to adjust the lab for new sensors and equipment being used in the fall term. In addition to practicing technical skills and writing, she has learned a lot about teamwork throughout the experience.

“This class also demonstrated for me the importance of focusing on team unity and validating your teammates. If teams allow themselves to focus on issues and don’t address concerns in a healthy way, it really sets the team up for challenges,” Kaminski said.

Each session had two instructors and a lab manager. The lab manager was Dr. Jair Lizarazo-Adarme, a research engineer in the engineering dean’s office who earned his doctorate in chemical engineering at UA. He had been designing and implementing upgrades to bring a remote lab operation to undergraduate students for a few years, but the coronavirus pandemic sped up the implementation.

“COVID gave us the impetus to implement remote operation,” Lizarazo-Adarme said.

“My role with the class has been upgrading the lab to bring trending technologies currently used in industry. I have been working on a control room operation concept that includes hardware upgrades that would allow us to capture ‘industrial style big data.’ These remote systems also allow us to add lab aspects to traditional lecture courses.”

Roscoe Wallace Sr, a 1989 chemical engineering graduate, said this form of delivery for the lab will help students be on the forefront of evolving processes. He sees this lab as a kind of real-world application that not everyone gets to experience.

“With advances in technology and the mechanization of production processes, engineers must be able to work remotely with data to solve problems and improve efficiencies,” Wallace said.

In July, Ritchie spoke about UA’s efforts during an American Institute of Chemical Engineers webinar where about 150 attendees nationwide heard from him and three other faculty representing Iowa State University, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Tulsa.“

We are at the forefront of this type of work, since we are one of the few programs in the country with a large chemical engineering lab over the summer,” said Dr. Heath Turner, chemical and biological engineering department head.

The unit operations lab was Paul Lammers’ favorite class. A 1985 chemical engineering graduate, he agrees that this remote lab reflects the format of current chemical plants and will give students a heads up for what to expect in the workforce.

“The changes that were forced by COVID-19 to this class adds a dimension that takes it a step closer to an operating chemical plant,” Lammers said. “I hope that when ‘normal’ returns the department will keep this remote activity as part of the course.” The department plans to continue offering hybrid labs to students for CHE 321 and CHE 322. In the hybrid course, the four-person teams will have two students in the lab as operators while two students work from a distance.

“Chemical plants are run from control rooms with remote operation. So, we will continue to operate like this for the foreseeable future,” Ritchie said.

In 1837, The University of Alabama became one of the first five universities in the nation to offer engineering classes. Today, UA’s College of Engineering has more than 5,800 students and more than 150 faculty. In recent years, students in the College have been named USA Today All-USA College Academic Team members, Goldwater, Hollings, Portz, Boren, Mitchell and Truman scholars.


Author: Alana Norris    /    Posted on: January 15, 2021    /    Posted in:   Alumni, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Faculty and Staff, Research, Students,    /    Features:   ,